Undying dedication to his trade and a master of the art. We paid a visit to one of Singapore’s last streetside barbers…
Gentlemen’s barber shops emulating vintage vibes are all over the city now, but there’s one old-school barber we need to talk about. I never knew (and I’m not proud to say it since I grew up here) that streetside barbers used to be a thriving industry. These men would be busy plying their trade in the back alleys of Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar, usually charging between $4 to $8 for a fuss-free haircut. Mr Lee Yuan Dong is one of the last, and giving haircuts has been his passion for the last 55 years. Here’s why he’s still a class act…
You’ll understand Mr Lee’s unique zeal once you’ve met him. He radiates an infectious natural smile that’s only present when a person is truly enjoying what they’re doing. Think a fisherman when he reels in the biggest catch of the day. His ‘barbershop’ is situated in the back alley of Telok Ayer Street, right behind Moosehead. He mentions that this hasn’t been his workspace all along – he only set up shop here in 2002 after he felt the sudden surge in rent at his previous place was not worth paying for.
A single chair along with a mirror, table and a makeshift shelter is all there is to his working space, but it feels cosy. From the very start, it’s obvious Mr Lee is quite the extrovert, and he was thoroughly engaged in a Hokkien conversation with the previous customer, raising his voice or making animated hand gestures to accentuate his point. With that much gusto, one would never guess he’s turning 80 next year.
Once it was my turn, I courageously asked what he thought of my current hairstyle. Pro tip: When you ask such an experienced barber such a question, you best be ready for an honest response. Bottom line, he thought my hair was an atrocity (he managed to fix it).
He charges just $6 a haircut and hasn’t raised his prices since the day he started. And for that $6, you get the full treatment: I found myself sitting there for almost half an hour, marvelling at his remarkable skill with the single-blade razor. If you’re in need of a beard shave, you can get that for an extra $4.
Not that I was complaining about the time spent on my cut: he clearly knows what he’s doing (you’d never guess he’s self-taught) and we an enjoyable conversation. Alternating between Mandarin and Hokkien, he let me in on some of his stories, from his hardship during the Japanese occupation to where he buys his lunch (I was told not to reveal that secret). He also fondly shared about how the majority of his customers are old friends who would travel here from all over the island just to chat and have their hair cut.
Feeling unmotivated to come to work each day? You have much to learn from Mr Lee. Despite his age, he makes the commute from his home at Holland Village six days a week, and when I asked why he doesn’t just enjoy his retirement, he remarked: “I get bored at home. Giving haircuts is the only thing I know how to do, and meeting new people as well as my old friends give me joy.” So I wasn’t too surprised when he confessed that being one of the last streetside barbers in Singapore doesn’t matter to him. For Mr Lee, an accolade like this means nothing compared to the looks of satisfaction on his customers after a good haircut.
Truth be told, my experience with Mr Lee was simple – there were no gimmicks like turning your chair 180 degrees or putting wet towels on your head but somehow, I walked away with a certain degree of unexplained happiness. Perhaps it’s the hearty conversations we shared, or it could be sheer admiration to see someone who’s completely content with life at the moment. Mr Lee proves that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication which transcends even time.
Mr Lee is located behind Moosehead along Telok Ayer Street and he usually opens from 10.30am-4pm from Mon-Fri and 10.30am-3pm on Sat. To make an appointment, call him at 97712146.